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Telling the Story of a People

Telling the Story of a People
A number of Black-oriented museums have opened recently, with more in development

Those who study and run the nation’s Black-oriented museums and cultural centers say we need as many as we can get in order to tell the story of Black America.

The Smithsonian’s new African American Museum of History and Culture in Washington, D.C., is one of at least seven major Black museums
and cultural centers either realized or in the planning stages. Last December the long-awaited Muhammad Ali Center had its grand opening in Louisville, Ky. Another museum, this one celebrating the state’s African-American history and culture, is set to open its doors soon.

In 2005, The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture opened in Baltimore, not long after the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center’s opening in Cincinnati. Also last year, San Francisco opened its Museum of the African Diaspora. And in the works are the National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg, Va., and a memorial to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the nation’s capital.
In the past decade, urban revitalization, Black political power and African-American philanthropy have helped fuel many of these new projects, says Fath Davis Ruffins, a curator in the Smithsonian’s American History Museum and an expert on African-American museums. The Reginald Lewis Museum was one of them. But early Black museums, some small and part of individual homes or tucked away in neighborhoods, were born out of activism and the Civil Rights Movement.

But the African-American story is so rich and complex that it can unfold and take shape in a number of venues, says Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director of the Smithsonian’s new African-American museum. He remembers a time when mainstream cultural centers and museums were not interested in telling that story.

“One of the biggest changes to happen in the museum community is that most institutions in America, at one point, wanted to explore African-American culture,” Bunch says. As a result, the environment “is more competitive as more institutions are looking at these stories, crafting exhibitions, hiring staff and searching for money. That makes it harder for Black museums.”

African-Americans now entering the field will have more choices of where they want to work, he says. But while the number of African-Americans entering the museum field grows, “I don’t think that there are nearly as many in positions of influence as there should be. There aren’t as many museum directors, there aren’t as many chief curators or heads of education.”

African-Americans aren’t the only people of color concerned about telling their story, collecting their history and flexing their political clout to celebrate their lives, says Ruffins. She points to the more than 100 existing and emerging tribal museums on reservations, many of which are largely federally-funded or supported by casino revenues. There are also more than 100 relatively new Latino museums, a growth spurt Ruffins says “parallels the Civil Rights Movement.” And when the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., opened in 1993, there were only six such facilities in the nation and about 30 worldwide. Today, says Ruffins, there are about 50 in the United States and 100 around the world.

— By B. Denise Hawkins

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